Published December 16th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
After almost seven years of receiving federal food assistance, Vanessa DeMoss is bracing to lose her benefits.
It’s not because she can suddenly afford what she couldn’t before – she’s still considered food insecure. But DeMoss is tired of limiting her life in order to stay in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food support system.
“It hurts people more than it helps them,” DeMoss said. “It keeps them in a cycle of poverty and being poor, and resorting to other things to feed their families … It just keeps you in a cycle of constantly doing the same thing over and over and over again, and it hurts you a lot.”
DeMoss’s story isn’t uncommon.
According to Feeding America, one in eight people in the United States face food insecurity. Of those who are food insecure, only 50% are eligible for SNAP benefits.
The result is a food chain stretched to the breaking point, families going hungry, people losing hope and a charitable sector struggling to help.
And that was all true even before the recent spike in inflation, or the hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hunger is a symptom of food insecurity. Someone is food insecure when they don’t have consistent or adequate access to nutritious food.
Locally, 13.2% of Missourians and 12.1% of Kansans are estimated as food insecure. Between the two states, that’s about 1.2 million people, of which only about 40% are eligible for SNAP benefits.
Overall need is expected to go up as the nation faces sharp food price increases. Gallup recently reported almost 45% of Americans face financial hardships because of inflation, with lower-income households bearing the brunt of those price shocks.
As a result, more households are looking to food assistance programs for help. But the cut off is so low that, for example, a family of four making more than $50,000 a year, would be ineligible.
In these situations, families turn to food pantries and kitchens for help, but prices keep rising, utility bills and mortgage payments have to be made, and the need for food isn’t going down.
Karen Siebert, the public policy and advocacy adviser for Harvesters (the food bank serving the KC area), said the organization tries its best to ensure eligible people are enrolled in nutrition assistance programs. This way, resources from pantries can stretch further to assist families that aren’t eligible for federal assistance who are still in need.
“To make sure that we have enough resources to help all those people who don’t have anywhere else to turn, we need to make sure that everyone who’s eligible for SNAP and TEFAP and those kinds of programs are getting that help so that we can use those charitable resources for the other folks,” Siebert said.
Siebert also pointed to a survey, conducted by Harvesters, which found that 78% of those who responded said that when money gets tight, they buy the cheapest available food, regardless of its nutritional value.
Inflation is likely prompting many families to make these decisions. Overall inflation surged 6.8% on a year-over-year basis in November, the Labor Department reported last week, the fastest pace since 1982. Food prices have increased 6.1% over the past year.
In that economic context, a packet of ramen has more calories than an apple for about the same price.
“When you’re just looking at the bottom line, that’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to look at what’s going to help you tomorrow,” Siebert said.
The statistic also shows that folks are aware of the nutritional value in their food.
Siebert often hears accusations that people are overweight because they made poor choices. In a lot of cases, they don’t have the financial resources to make a healthy choice.
When month after month, families are forced to choose the food they can afford rather than the food that nourishes them, problems develop.
Naiomi Jamal, a family physician and Chief Quality Officer at Swope Health, cited numerous health concerns associated with food insecurity.
“Food insecurity, oftentimes people wouldn’t really know that it runs in parallel with obesity, because we have created a system … where unhealthy, processed food is oftentimes more accessible and cheaper and more affordable than the healthier foods that we’re trying to give our patients,” Jamal said.
Obesity can lead to diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks and other health risks if not controlled soon. Jamal started including questions about food access into patient screening at her clinic after realizing many of her patients were food insecure.
Put simply, it’s hard to prescribe a healthy diet when the patient can’t afford it.
“If outside of that 20-minute clinical visit, there were so many other social issues that they were impacted with: housing insecurity, food insecurity, unless those things were addressed in some way, shape or form, we wouldn’t really be able to help them reach their health goals,” Jamal said.
Food insecure patients would then be directed to Harvesters. There they’d be assisted through SNAP applications, or directed to the closest pantries.
Aside from referring her patients to services, Jamal also strives to break down the stigma of food assistance.
“If somebody is food insecure, we shouldn’t really see it as their failure, or something that they did wrong,” Jamal said. “It oftentimes is a result of various policies that we have put in place that people find themselves in those situations.”
Hilah Mae is a qualified mental health professional with Tri-County Mental Health Services, which serves Clay, Platte and Ray counties.
A lot of her job is paperwork. Many of the folks she works with benefit from having someone hold them accountable for things like filling out SNAP applications.
A lot of times, when her clients come in to fill out food assistance paperwork, Mae said they express hesitancy in applying.
“They don’t want it because they feel like somebody else needs it more,” Mae said. “And they feel like that by using it, they’re taking it from somebody else.”
She gets frustrated by this mindset, because it’s technically taxpayer money.
“They have to have that conversation of it’s not the government giving you money, you’re getting your money back … every time you pay taxes, it goes towards this,” Mae said.
Once they’ve decided to seek assistance, the process is hardly straightforward.
The paperwork itself, she explained, is fairly simple to fill out. But the application process can be cumbersome for many.
On the paperwork, applicants answer questions about income, household size, former criminal charges, or whether or not they’ve been convicted of selling food stamps.
“But the part of it that is really frustrating is that when you call in to do your interview, you have to answer these questions again,” Mae said. “And then you have to answer these questions again, before you can even find out if you’re going to be able to see somebody or be able to talk to somebody.”
After the first call, applicants are often told no one is available to speak with them, so they have to call back at a different time and answer all of the questions again until they can finally get a hold of someone.
Sometimes folks will send in an application and get it sent back asking for additional information or documentation: bank statements, child support rulings, or utility bills. Then the mail, fax or email timeline starts over.
Mae said it’s always been a slow process. But before the COVID-19 pandemic, you could apply and get approved in a little over a week.
Now, she has clients who get to the phone call process and have to spend 3-5 hours on hold, during the work day, just for an interview which takes no more than 15 minutes.
“So I have other people who are working who also need food stamps, (and) that’s like an entire workday, so you can’t call in,” Mae said. “Historically, the majority of people on food stamps have been working. … So you’re seeing these people who are working who need it, who can’t get it because they are so busy with the rest of their lives.”
Not only that, but the SNAP application often won’t take into account travel expenses, which for someone who commutes, or lives rurally, are vital to holding down a job.
“I’ve had clients who’ve had to quit jobs because they said, ‘It costs me more to go into work than I’m making,’” Mae said. “I think a common misconception is that people on disability, or people on food stamps, and things like this don’t want to work. Everyone on my caseload wants to work to some extent.”
DeMoss’ years on food stamps made her feel like she’d never be food secure.
“It kind of makes you feel like they want you to just not work,” DeMoss said. “But then turn around and tell you that, (if) you’re just getting benefits, you’re just sitting around all day.”
DeMoss faces the “free handout” stigma a lot.
She works 35 hours a week, on top of taking care of her child. If she didn’t need the assistance, she wouldn’t take it. But since the birth of her son, she’s been stuck in the cycle of working to save up, then having to quit a job to keep receiving food assistance.
“It’s just a cycle of being stuck under and feeling like you’re always dragging and (that) you’re never going to be able to improve your life in any way shape or form,” DeMoss said. “And I always, constantly feel like I am going to always be on food stamps.”
She’s chosen to continue working and earning money, even if it means she loses SNAP eligibility. After years of having to pick and choose and budget every dollar, she’s confident she can make it on her own when the time comes.
“The reality is that if I do continue to make more money, which is what I have just chosen to do, at least I’ll be prepared for it,” DeMoss said. “If I do get kicked off benefits, it won’t be as bad.”
She’s breaking out of the cycle and out of a system that was holding her back.
Mae sees the same thing with the folks she works with all the time.
“Yes!” Mae blurted when asked if the system perpetuates itself.
An assistance program might allow someone to get a job. But in a job just slightly over minimum wage, most people lose assistance and end up in the same place they were before.
“They’re like: ‘Financially, I’m in the same place I was before I was working, and now…I have the stress of dealing with people in retail or people in fast food’,” Mae said. “It’s so much stress and so much work to survive that if you could work with a living wage, (it’s) not going to heal anyone’s mental illness, but it is going to lessen a lot of what they’re having to deal with.”
Lisa Ross, the SNAP Education (SNAP-Ed) coordinator with Kansas State University Extension, said she sees people turn away from assistance programs because of its complex application process, and wage cut offs.
“We have systems in place that are actually causing more of a problem,” Ross said.
Some SNAP benefit recipients have to choose between a slight raise at work, or keeping their food assistance. A 25 cents per hour raise might make a difference, but it certainly doesn’t replace the $200 a month they were receiving in benefits.
“If they do get a job, or a higher paying job or a raise, it kicks them off, and they’re still not able to afford the foods that they need,” Ross said.
The SNAP program tries to gradually decrease benefits as a household earns more, but only up to the 130% poverty level. So, while folks might not lose benefits cold turkey, they’re usually still below 185% poverty level, which is considered food insecure.
For many, the best route is to decline a raise in order to stay below the cut off.
Not only does it keep people in poverty and locked in the system, but it perpetuates the misconception that people on food assistance are either lazy or don’t work.
“The majority of our participants who are receiving SNAP benefits have jobs,” Ross said. “They might have two to three jobs, but they’re not earning a living wage to make those ends meet.”
As Jamal said, rarely is someone only affected by food insecurity. Usually it’s a combination of transportation issues, housing problems, mental health illnesses, or low wages.
Since it’s unlikely all of those issues will be ameliorated soon, the food sector is working with the programs it has in place.
The first step is to ensure everyone eligible for food assistance programs is enrolled and receiving benefits.
Nutrition and budgeting education also plays an important role in this process.
Ross works to educate food assistance recipients to stretch their benefits for the most nutritious food possible, and she pushes for public policies that allow them to do so.
“Basically, our goal is to implement strategies or interventions to help audiences, the SNAP audience, establish healthy eating habits within a limited budget and choose a physically active lifestyle,” Ross said.
For example, the SNAP-Ed team is working on policies to allow farmers markets across the state of Kansas to accept SNAP EBT benefits.
“Those policy, system and environmental changes really enforce what we’ve been talking about in the classroom,” Ross said. “So that when we tell them to eat more fruits and vegetables, or be more physically active, they actually can go out and do it in their community.”
Policy improvements can also come from outside of assistance programs. Advocates have pushed to remove the Kansas sales tax from groceries, and last month Gov. Laura Kelly announced she’d taken up the issue.
The 6.5% sales tax on food is the second highest in the nation. When every penny counts, an extra couple of dollars at the grocery store can be a nasty pinch.
“While removing the state’s sales tax on food will help all Kansas families, it will benefit our low-income families the most, as they use more of their income on basic needs, like groceries,” Kansas Health Foundation said in Kelly’s announcement.
For those who don’t qualify for food assistance, need just a little bit of help, or are working to get off of SNAP benefits, the charitable sector steps in.
Harvesters collects food from across the region and the country that would otherwise be thrown in the trash by grocery stores and distributes it to pantries and kitchens.
Food that is nearing the sell-by date but hasn’t expired is loaded into Harvesters’ trucks and distributed to food pantries across 16 counties in Kansas and 10 counties in Missouri.
Harvesters also partners with other organizations like After the Harvest to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables. The programs help to reduce waste and to feed the people who need it.
In the past year, 35% of the food distributed by Harvesters has been fresh produce, per the requests of those it serves. As a result, food pantries were able to stock shelves with nutritious food and not just canned, non-perishable items.
The final step to serving the food insecure community is offering individualized care, or what founder and CEO of Food Equality Initiative, Emily Brown, calls “the dignity of choice.”
She started the initiative after realizing how difficult it was to get food from pantries or food assistance programs that her children, who suffer from food allergies, could eat.
“The thought traditionally … has been, let’s just get calories to people. Let’s just get food in their bellies,” Brown said. “But it really needs to be focused on the right food and … our approach needs to be more personalized. Because food is so personal.”
Food is personalized not only by allergies, but by cultural and individual needs. Bacon won’t be used by someone who doesn’t eat pork. A box of pasta doesn’t do any good to the family living without electricity.
Brown argues that by creating personalized food care and allowing people the “dignity of choice,” folks will receive more nutritious foods and create less food waste.
Food banks realize the benefit of this model too. Siebert said prior to the pandemic, Harvesters had transitioned most of its partner pantries to a “client choice” model.
Rather than receive a box full of non-perishable foods, folks could “shop” for the items they wanted in a grocery store style pantry.
“You choose what those (items) are for your family, because it may be that you know your children will not eat canned green beans, but that they love peas,” Siebert said. “It also helps with food waste when they’re going to take the things that they want and they know their family will eat.”
When the pandemic stripped most of these pantries of their volunteers, and the small spaces could no longer safely facilitate in-person shopping, the pantries had to go back to less personalized methods of distributing boxes of food.
“The pandemic changed all of that, because that’s all personal and it’s all going into a room and interacting with people,” Siebert said. “So we sort of had to move back to the box model.”
As the pandemic took hold, Harvesters’ agencies reported a 40% increase in need.
It’s been hard to transition back to an in person model because most pantries are run by volunteers, many of which are elderly individuals, who are more vulnerable to the pandemic.
Without the person power to stock the shelves, pantries have to make do, and distribute food as efficiently as possible.
“The client choice (model) is the best thing, but we just have to see moving forward, how that can work,” Siebert said.
Like anyone else, those who are seeking food assistance or relying on a pantry are just trying to make ends meet.
“When I was working at the local unit with WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) a lot of people would come in and the first thing they would do is apologize for being there, and that broke my heart.”
There shouldn’t be shame in doing what you have to in order to feed your family.
“That’s what these programs are designed for, is for those times that you need us. And we can help you get through that so that you can feed your family and yourself,” Ross said. “Nobody has to feel hungry.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS.